Now researchers have succeeded in training dogs to identify COVID infected persons as well as contents contaminated with the virus. According to news reports, a team of researchers in Hawaii, including an Israeli have recently completed a Phase III study on the use of dogs to sniff out COVID virus and prevent its further spread.
Jerusalem Post report said, the results of the study conducted by Assistance Dogs of Hawaii (ADH), which are expected to be submitted for peer-review as early as this week, show that the dogs are almost 100% accurate at the task.
ADH has been teaching four dogs – three Labrador retrievers named Sadie, Tess and Yuki, and a Golden retriever named Samson – to detect people infected with corona. Ten dogs tried out for the program, but only these dogs made the cut.
The organization’s executive director, Maureen Maurer, said ADH and others have already been using dogs to test for other infectious and non-infectious pathologies. She said they realized that if the dogs could also be used to identify coronavirus there could be several advantages, including the ability to screen large numbers of individuals very quickly.
Dogs could be used to screen people, even those who may be asymptomatic, at places like airports, schools and hospitals, ports of entry and public gatherings.
“This is especially important in countries where cases are still surging and increasing,” Maurer told The Jerusalem Post.
Furthermore, the approach is noninvasive, results are obtainable in real time, no close contact is required with infectious samples, costs are low and large numbers of individuals can be screened quickly, a March report by the World Health Organization said.
Sarit Brinn, who studied dog therapy and training in Israel, has been working with ADH. She said that when COVID-19 hit, she decided to leave Israel and “expand my knowledge and try something new in the dog field. I looked online and saw this ad that ADH was looking for interns, applied and now I am here.”
Brinn will stay in Hawaii next year as a staff member of the organization.
For the COVID study, she has been helping with sample handling and data recording.
“I love it,” she told the Jerusalem Post.
“Our intern program is international, and we really encourage people to come and learn ways that dogs can help people – and then take that information and knowledge and experience back to their own country and start programs there,” Maurer explained.
Regarding the coronavirus protocol, she said ADH has already been in contact with state and county officials and is “hoping to share our protocols with other agencies who can scale this program” and place more dogs sniffing out coronavirus in the field.
Phase I of the study – the training phase – took about eight weeks and was completed in March. The dogs learned to distinguish the scent of COVID-19 emitted through human sweat from hundreds of other odors.
Phase II was a double-blinded study completed in April. During that phase, three dogs were presented with hundreds of sweat samples from both inpatients and outpatients. The sweat was collected on a cotton swab that was rubbed on the neck of the volunteer. The samples were then refrigerated and shipped to ADH, where they were placed in boxes that were arranged in a line for the dogs. The dogs approached the lineup of boxes and demonstrated observable alerting behavior, such as sitting or placing a paw on the box. If they were right – identifying the positive samples – they got a treat.
All dogs performed well, with an average rate of correctly identifying positive samples of close to 100%, and an average rate of ignoring negative samples of more than 90 percent.
Phase III, which was just recently completed, involved 3-year-old retriever Tess screening hospital patients coming in for surgery at The Queen’s Medical Center in Hawaii.
Patients would come in a week ahead of their surgery to do a PCR coronavirus test. At the same time, the lab technician would collect a sweat sample for ADH, which would be presented to the dog. The dog’s results would then be compared to the lab’s.
“We are still completing a review of the data, but it was extremely accurate – close to 100%,” Maurer said. “We are about to publish something on it.”
Similar studies have been conducted in France, Germany, Iran, Columbia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Australia, Lebanon, Chile, Finland and Belgium, according to WHO. Several breeds of dogs have been tried, the most common ones at the moment being Belgium and German Shepherds, Labradors, Golden retrievers, Beagles, Border Collies, Springer spaniels and mixed breeds.
“However, all dogs that have a strong motivation for a reward, a keen olfactory ability and good working focus are suitable,” WHO reported.
One dog is able to screen 250 to 300 people a day and maybe more, the studies have shown. And the cost is low – around $1.20 per person – meaning the societal monetary savings could be significant.
Studies exploring the possible influence of vaccines on the dogs’ ability to identify the virus are currently underway, WHO said.
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